- Associated Press - Thursday, April 21, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposed $800 million prison construction project cleared a major hurdle Thursday, after a committee approved the bill along with a proposed $13 increase in auto title fees as a funding source.

The House Ways and Means General Fund Committee voted 7-4 for a revised bill authorizing an $800 million bond issue to build four new prisons - three regional mega-prisons for men and a new women’s prison- and close most existing state facilities. The vote came after approval of a separate bill to raise auto title fees.

Committee Chairman Steve Clouse said the “reasonable” title fee increase would provide some fiscal insurance to lawmakers who have questioned the prison system’s plan to pay for the bond issue through consolidation savings after closing most existing state prisons.

“It helps answer some questions from a number of legislators, including myself, who are concerned about savings being able to pay the entire bond issue. This gives us a revenue stream,” Clouse said.

The House could vote on the bills next week. Clouse said he expected the prison bill to be the “major issue” before lawmakers in the remainder of the session.

Bentley issued a statement via his official Twitter account praising committee passage.

“This legislation is unique and will address a decades old problem in our prison system. It will prioritize public safety inside and out,” Bentley said.

Alabama prisons, which hold nearly twice the number of inmates they were originally designed for, have been plagued in recent months by outbreaks of headline-grabbing violence. A total of eight inmates were killed by other inmates at state prisons in 2015, statistics show. And the warden at William C. Holman Correctional Facility was stabbed last month during an uprising in which inmates seized control of a dorm, lit fires and tried to gain access to other prison areas. The warden’s injuries weren’t life-threatening.

The proposed auto title fee increase would raise the fee from $15 to $28. Rep. Reed Ingram, a car dealer who sponsored the legislation, said Alabama’s fee hasn’t been adjusted in decades. He said most states charge much higher fees such as $50 or $70. Such an increase would raise an extra $18.3 million each year.

Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the department remains confident that the savings can pay for the bond issue debt, estimated at $50 million a year for 30 years.

“To the extent that we’ve said, that will be the first check we write each year,” Dunn said.

Dunn said the department will seek a feasibility study of the numbers and plans before seeking any bond issue funds. At the earliest, construction would start 18 months after the passage of the bill, he said.

Both bills face an uncertain outlook with just five days remaining in the legislative session. The Senate has already approved the bond issue, but some members of the Alabama Senate have expressed opposition to approving any tax increases this year.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which opposes the bill, issued a statement saying that there were many questions about the plan and that it did not “address the underlying cause of over-incarceration.”

“As states throughout the South and the rest of the country are moving toward cost-saving models of justice proven to keep communities safer, Alabama is coming dangerously close to spending 1.5 billion dollars on an ill thought-out plan that raises more questions than it answers,” said Monique Gillum, policy strategist with the Southern Poverty Law Center


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